Nobody that’s a nobody ever asks what are you writing? There’s no reason to think I’m writing anything. But if that nobody ever did ask I’ve got a ready-mix answer. I’m writing about us, and I’m trying to get it right. Elena Ferrante writes again and again about Naples. Its crude dialect and its even cruder people who are not to be trusted, even among themselves, especially by themselves.
Here are some crude notes about this novel and its place in Ferrante’s oeuvre. In My Brilliant Friend, Lila is sixteen when she marries Steffano and into the wealth of the Carracci family. Here Nina is twenty-two and married to the same kind of brutish figure that Lila married. Neither of them are narrators of their own story.
Nina is also on holiday, Leda admires her ease with her body, her beauty. She notes her family supervise Nina’s every movement and her husband pops in for conjugal visits.
Lila, of course, despite being married, and having a child, engineered a meeting with Nino.
Here Nina tries to do the same with a student who works on the beach. Loyalty to kith and kin and clan are played against a woman’s loyalty to herself and the life she deserves away from child rearing and boring sex with your husband. This is something Leda, the narrator, and before that Elena knows about. We are in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening territory. A woman can’t have a family and career, in the same way as a man can. The idea is ridiculous.
So when the educated Leda admits to Nina and her extended Neapolitan family that she left her daughter when they were small children for three years, she no longer looks so classy to them. The ugly and very pregnant Rosaria in particular tries to screen Nina from Leda’s influence. There’s red flags on the beach, another prop in Ferrante’s books and with each wave that sweeps in the fantasy that a woman can, and the fantasy that a woman can’t, builds into a swell.
Here, the mad woman, a cautionary figure that makes the wrong choice and usually drowns herself, is or might be, Leda. Her hysterical attempt to separate herself from her own coarse upbringing through education and learning and therefore to be valued for herself is a Sisyphean task. In the opening of the book this shows with a car that goes out of control and she finds herself in hospital.
It mirrors Elena, the narrator in My Brilliant Friend, who also went to university in Florence, and had two daughters she left to start an affair with Nino, as Leda, does here. Leda’s unravelling begins when Nina’s daughter goes missing.
Time disappears. We are back on the beach where Lila’s daughter goes missing never to be found. Later, Lila, promises that she too will disappear (on her own terms) and does.
Here the beautiful mother’s daughter, Elena, is quickly spotted by Leda and she takes her back to Nina. But for some inexplicable reason Leda steals the infant’s doll.
You may remember that Elena and Lila begin their beautiful friendship when their dolls go missing in Don Achiche’s basement. The same basement that the narrator in Days of Abandonment, might or might not have been raped in. And the dolls Tina and Imma, find a live of their own, return in the denouement of another novel, but, in the meantime Elena and Lila have daughters called Tina and Imma and it’s Imma that is lost never to be found. Here The Lost Daughter is the doll, but it’s much more than the doll, it life and everything a doll can stand for. Not metaphor, but cold and hard with glass eyes and a body full of sea water. Scratch the surface of women’s lives and dreams and glass eyes stare back. There’s no right or wrong answers. Just life. That’s the beauty of it. Life. Education will tell. But what it will tell is a different story each time.